he cover of Jolie Holland’s Escondida is a blurry black and white photograph showing Holland holding a fiddle and bow next to a man in a wooden chair playing harmonica. It’s your first clue that the album is a bit of a relic, waiting to take you back to a time when storytellers sang their porch songs in the twilight, no amplification necessary. And, like the cover suggests, there’s a feeling of impromptu performance throughout; you almost expect to hear muted handclaps and foot stomps on a wooden floor in the background. This spontaneity was perhaps borne from the time Holland spent traveling with an itinerant group of performers while the rest of her peers were cramped into college classrooms looking forward to their future. With her timeless blues-folk-Americana, it’s clear that Holland prefers looking back.
Holland’s official bio warns that knowing where an artist comes from “does not explain her sound”, but the Texas-born California resident still has some of that slow southern heat oozing through her veins, fueling an epic “go West” sensibility. After co-founding the Be Good Tanyas and appearing on their first record, Holland set out on her own, touring the west coast from Vancouver to her current home in San Francisco. Her first solo release, Catalpa, originated as a collection of lo-fi demos. Enthusiastic fan-sharing and a nomination for the 2003 Shortlist Music Award from label-mate Tom Waits led to critical acclaim and a healthy anticipation for her follow-up release.
Escondida, Holland’s first studio album, was released on Anti-, one of the few record labels that carefully curates their roster. Anti- signs “real artists creating great recordings on their own terms.” Having label-mates like Merle Haggard and Neko Case automatically brings some credibility to a new artist’s career, but Holland lives up to it. A self-taught musician, she wrote most of the songs on the record, except for covers of traditional songs “Mad Tom of Bedlam” and “Faded Coat of Blue”. Whether she’s picking guitar or playing the fiddle with her band, the music shines a warm spotlight onto her voice. Her unique phrasing is an instrument itself, whether she’s crooning like a trumpet or rolling syllables around on her tongue like fine aged whiskey.
Musically, Holland could be considered the more eccentric and authentic second cousin of Norah Jones. Most of the songs are a relaxed mid-tempo, her sound is soothing and pleasant and, crucially, she’s willing to push the boundaries lyrically. Whether she’s entreating “give me that old fashioned morphine”, confiding she’s “just about sick to death / Of taking breath / And walking this line of mine”, or asking, somewhere between lust and exasperation “do you have to go crazy / Is that the best thing that you can think to do? / …You motherfucker, I wanted you” on album highlight “Do You?”
Holland’s still capable of the youthful swings between elation and despair, but those extremes are tempered with a world-weary maturity, a sophisticated equilibrium. “I don’t let it bother me none”, she tells us, and we can’t help but believe her.
Reviewed by: Krissy Teegerstrom
Reviewed on: 2004-12-17